Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination marks a historic occasion in America. Assuming she is confirmed, being the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court will cause enormous cultural ripple effects. Just as the aspiration to become president became more authentic for black children who witnessed Barack Obama’s election, Sotomayor’s confirmation will provide inspiration for young Latinos to dream big. But we must tread lightly.
Many try to use Obama’s election to declare the country to be in a “post-racial era” – a fact apparently confirmed by the election of a black man, proving that racism and discrimination are behind us. If we’re not careful, Sotomayor’s confirmation could be used by some as evidence that the educational system is fine and provides all with equal opportunity to attain the American dream.
The reality, of course, is more complex.
Public discourse over the meaning of Sotomayor’s nomination has in recent weeks become a convenient vehicle for some to debate affirmative action. This debate cuts two ways. While some use Sotomayor's nomination to claim we have leveled the playing field and reached a post-racial era, there is also a vocal contingent accusing her of being racist and of being too pro-affirmative action. The fervor caused by her statements about the contributions of a "wise Latina," or the troubling lack of Latino faculty members in her own education is a potent reminder of how unwilling we all are to engage in a constructive discussion about the role and significance of race and ethnicity in American society. I plan to join this debate and make the case in a future essay about the utility of affirmative action policies and practices. We must be willing to engage in real discussions about how race and ethnicity can describe us, not divide us.
The Latino population in the United States -- Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, Central American and others -- is the youngest and fastest growing segment of an increasingly diverse United States. But we are still disproportionately poor and undereducated. Nowhere is the division between Latinos and other ethnic groups starker than when it comes to achievement in higher education. Research, as well as personal experience, shows that race and ethnicity do matter. In fact, paying attention to differences while working to engage and serve all Americans is the hallmark of the most effective higher education reform efforts. But while our country has witnessed a steady increase in college participation rates for Latino students, up almost 25 percent between 2000 and 2004 according to the U.S. Department of Education, completion rates for Latino students have barely changed in three decades.
That’s not due to lack of desire: A recent survey  sponsored by Oppenheimer Funds Inc., "College Within Reach," shows that Hispanic Americans are strongly committed to a college education as a part of fulfilling the America dream. In fact, 61 percent of Hispanic parents agreed that Obama's rise to the presidency "proves that a good education makes anything possible." In a floundering economy, however, only a small percentage is able to save up enough to make that dream a reality.
Sotomayor, who from humble beginnings in the South Bronx went on to excel at Princeton University as an undergraduate and at Yale University’s law school, is an extraordinary striver. She will be, and should be, an inspiration for young Latinos and Latinas -- in fact, for all young people. She is exceptional and the exception. We must not allow recognition of her achievements to mask the challenges faced by Latinos across this country for whom an Ivy League education is out of reach.
Nor should she be attacked for being mindful of the range of unique experience she brings to the Supreme Court as a Latina. Society is strengthened when leadership in the White House and state houses, in corporate boardrooms and federal and state courtrooms, and on campuses and in classrooms more fully reflects and acknowledges the challenges of the least well served of our population.
The opportunity for America lies in harnessing the potential of our young Latino population and helping them – and as a result, the nation – to thrive. This is not simply an issue of good will but a matter of necessity. Today, 37 percent of the more than 40 million Latinos in this country are under 20 years of age. By 2020, Latinos will make up 22 percent of the nation’s college-age population, according to demographic estimates today. The critical question is whether Latinos will actually reach college and, once there, succeed.
We need an expanded, educated workforce to manage the jobs of the future, but America’s workforce is increasingly falling behind the pack, becoming less skilled and less competitive. According to a 2007 report, while 30 years ago the United States could claim 30 percent of the world’s population of college students, that proportion has fallen to 14 percent and is continuing to decline.
The coincidence of a Latino population boom and a projected American workforce unprepared for high-skill jobs of the future is sometimes described as a crisis and used to forecast the end of U.S. economic dominance. But that’s a skewed picture. There are many benefits to a booming U.S. Latino population comprised of ambitious, hard working individuals, simply waiting to be tapped. "Latinos have saved our country," argues Ken Gronbach, author of The Age Curve: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm. "They represent 14 percent of the population but 25 percent of live births. The United States is the only Western industrialized nation with a fertility rate above the 2.2 percent replacement rate." Latino growth spurs the economy, contributes to keeping the Social Security system solvent, and will help prop up the real-estate market once the economy begins to recover.
But Latinos can do more than revive markets and pay for aging baby boomers — we can produce more extraordinary teachers, scientists and judges. Those concerned with the development of America’s human capital, as well as those who advocate on behalf of underserved Latino communities nationwide, can agree on one thing: Education, and particularly higher education, is, and has always been, the most promising pathway to a brighter future.
A new report from Excelencia in Education, Leading in a Changing America: Presidential Perspectives from Hispanic-Serving Institutions , shows how some colleges and universities have found innovative ways to significantly increase the successful participation of “nontraditional” students: those who are part-time, lower-income, commuting, older and students of color. Most Hispanic students fit these categories, and they thrive with culturally relevant support and scheduling that addresses the realities of their lives.
These institutions are front runners as the country is nearing a paradigm shift in education. Many colleges and universities still don’t adequately meet the needs of a large percentage of the Latino college-age population. If Latino college degree production does not improve, the country’s projections for college degree production will not improve. Where will that leave us in 2050, when Latinos are predicted to be a fourth of the population?
Responding to this challenge requires keeping Latino academic expectations high for the newly arrived, as well as for Latinos who have been in this country for generations --and encouraging all to fully participate in American society. The significant numbers of Latinos in the armed services demonstrates their willingness to invest in this country. Imagine matching their commitment to this country with real access and support to earn a college degree.
By implementing strategies to help Latinos succeed in higher education, we ensure that our country remains competitive, that a greater segment of the U.S. population succeeds economically, and that we enhance the opportunity for this country to be strengthened by the outstanding abilities of those who will follow Sotomayor’s path. Already, it’s possible that somewhere in our country the first Latino – or Latina – President of the United States — sits in a classroom. This child’s potential will be fully realized when education affords him or her the best chance of achieving all that he or she dreams.
Sarita Brown is President of Excelencia in Education, an organization that aims to accelerate Latino higher education success.